On July 2nd, as promised, the Mastrou made its inaugural run from the new station at Tournon – St Jean de Muzols to Lamastre. Packed with dignitaries and elected local and regional politicians (collectively refered to in French as les huiles) and drawn by the restored Mallet 403 steam locomotive it puffed and whistled its way through the gorge and then along the gentle valley of the Doux, proudly flying tricolour flags. We were there to cheer it on from Arlebosc station, with a trumpet fanfare from Markus as it sped past.
But what really excited us was the promised return of the autorail diesel train which used to run on market days. We remember this as a real institution. It would stop on request at any station, halt or wayside cherry tree to pick up country couples with baskets, as well as summer visitors from the campsites along the route. The return journey was always animated, the baskets now full of provisions for the week and everyone swapping the news and gossip they had picked up at the market. The husbands, who had been brought along to help carry a heavy gas bottle or a crate of live chickens, had had time to catch up with their friends over a glass or two and everyone was looking forward to lunch. The train gradually emptied out, depositing its passengers as close as possible to their homes before chugging off down to Tournon.
For the moment the steam trains are not coming up as far as Lamastre, so no one was sure whether the market train would really run, and no one seemed to believe us when we said we proposed to flag it down at Arlebosc station (which Markus insists on referring to as Arlebosc Central even though it is no such thing!) We arrived at what we had calculated to be an appropriate time and reflected whilst we waited that the station could do with a sweep out, a bit of weeding and a lick of paint – maybe a project. Then two chaps turned up and, obviously taking us for a couple of townee lunatics (one dresses up for market day in Lamastre), assured us that there would be no train. We held our ground however and they regaled us with great stories from the past, including a rather improbable account of an encounter between the autorail and a cow on the line in which the former came off worst.
And then . . . . toot toot toot . . . . we heard it approaching round the curve over the viaduct! Markus took photos whilst Kate confidently held out her arm, basket much in evidence. The train slowed, stopped and, to everyone’s vast surprise the conductor got down, sold us our tickets (4€ return each) and we piled on board. It was standing room only by this time. She told us that she had 114 passengers in the two cars, which is the maximum she is allowed to carry.
The ride takes twenty minutes and is truly enchanting. The landscape is still completely unspoiled and the track winds along the course of the river, past farmsteads and through orchards and meadows just as it always did. It was this journey that started off our love affair with the Doux valley one magical May day twenty five years ago and nothing has changed.
We pulled into Lamastre on time at 10 am and walked from the station over the flower decked bridge into the bustling market. We had the perfect amount of time to get everything done before leaving again at 12 noon. As we approached our stop the conductor called out “la gare d’Arlebosc, une minute d’arrêt!” We wished everyone bon voyage and bon apétit and made our way home, vastly pleased with our morning.
It is wonderful to have our train back and, although the service is still a bit limited we feel very positive about the future of the line. At all events, we shall certainly be at the station with our basket next Tuesday to take the train in to market.